A star in the making. A gem waiting to shine. The next Thierry Henry. These were some of the words which were used to describe Theo Walcott when he first signed for Arsenal in 2006. The guy was considered the ‘next big thing’ in England since Wayne Rooney. And indeed when he was selected for the England World Cup squad in 2006(even before he made his Premier League debut!!), the hype was already in full swing. Although Theo did not get a single minute in the whole of the tournament, expectations were still very high. After all, he was the youngest player in the tournament.
It’s been four years now, how much did he improve? Well, if you follow the analogy that since he made the World Cup in 2006 but not the World Cup in 2010, then he did not improve but deteriorated. Of course, we all know that’s not true. His World Cup selection in 2006 was just wrong and he himself admitted that. Whether he deserved a place the next time around is questionable as there were older, more experienced players the manager could have opted for. But one thing’s for sure, he certainly improved a lot since 2006 but just not to the level many expected him to be in.
What are his weaknesses? Certainly not his speed, that’s for sure! The guy is undoubtedly the fastest player in the Premier League and it is this attribute that people want him to build around. Theo is weakest at his decision making and his crossing ability. Time and time again he tries to cross the ball when he could have hold on to it a little longer and vice versa. At other times he would drive in a high cross when a low one would have been more appropriate. Theo is deployed by Arsene Wenger as a winger which Theo argues is not his best position. But most Arsenal fans know that this is the same tactic Wenger used with Thierry Henry when he first joined Arsenal. This made Henry develop into a complete player which we know he is. Since Walcott is played as a winger, he should take his role seriously. But so far his crossing ability has disappointed us. He needs to practice more vigorously on this aspect of his game. Lastly, he needs to improve his defensive qualities. I know he is a winger but Arsenal is a team which gives away 2 goal leads rather easily and naturally it needs all the help it can get from its midfielders. Theo does not provide those much needed defensive attributes like tracking back, holding up play and being a physical presence on the field. This is especially true when he is brought in as a sub in the 60th or so minute to help protect the lead and provide more effective counter attacks. He does the latter very well but fails in the former. A good example of this is the last game against Fulham. After Walcott was called on, he was almost invisible, seldom providing any defensive cover. When he did have the ball in his feet, he seemed rather rusty giving it away at the most crucial moments.
Last season was an injury plagued season for Walcott. He still managed to start 12 league games. After 16 league games this season Walcott has made 8 appearances and started only 2. If this trend continues, then by the end of the season he will have started only about 5-6 games which is a step down from last season. This just goes to show how competition within the squad has increased. Walcott is not improving as quickly as the squad as a whole is improving. Let’s take a look at players who are in direct competition with Theo and how much better or worse they are suited to the right wing:
1. Samir Nasri: With Cesc Fabregas in the team, Nasri is almost sure to start on the right. Nasri is a completely transformed player this season. Having scored 4 goals in his last 3 games, Nasri has done well to carry the team forward in the absence of Cesc Fabregas. With his current form, I do not see any player in the Premier League replacing him let alone Theo Walcott.
2. Emmanuel Eboue: Given that Eboue was predominantly used as a right back this season, he is still a candidate for the right wing as he was used in midfield last season. If ever a crisis were to arise in midfield, Eboue could be slotted in as a temporary fix. He is currently injured but when fit, he can provide the defensive cover on the right which Theo fails to do. But because he lacks in pace and his finishing ability is a notch under Theo’s, Eboue is behind in pecking order for this position.
3. Robin Van Persie: Most people are ambivalent about RVP’s role in this team. On one hand, when RVP is fit(a miracle to Arsenal fans) they want him to play and on the other hand they do not want Chamakh to drop to the bench. So, to fit RVP into the starting lineup Wenger has to play him on the right. If this becomes the case, then Walcott’s chances of making it into the starting line up will be unfortunately thwarted.
4. Tomas Rosicky: This is one player who thus far failed to make a big impact at Arsenal as he was always held back by injuries. But these days he seems a bit stronger and looks less prone to injuries. This is the positive side to his game. But, Tomas has been widely used as a substitute this season and rightly so. When he does start, he looks like a shadow of a player who made such a huge impact on the Czech national team in the World Cup of 2006. He seemed to have such a great finishing ability then and some of his long shots were stupendous. Now-a-days, though, he seems to lack pace and fails at most of his attempts on goal. This might be down to his age. The Little Mozart, although he might not seem to be so, is almost 31 years old and his best years are probably behind him. Nonetheless, he is very much a strong candidate for this position and Walcott has to prove that he can contribute more than Tomas can in this year’s title challenge.
The worst part is that most of these players can cross better than Theo which gives Wenger even more reasons to start him on the bench.
Walcott faces some stiff competition this season unlike any he had ever faced before. It will only be through some emphatic hard work and substantial diligence that he will get a starting place in this strong Arsenal squad. But in case he does not, as Arsenal fans we should realize the guy is only 21 years old and has time on his side. Not everyone progresses at the same rate and us fans have to be patient with Theo. Just forget for one moment that Theo ever was in the 2006 World Cup squad at 17, that he scored a hat-trick against Croatia in only his second World Cup qualifier and you will begin to realize how the people and the media have been so over-expectant of him. Let him take his time and one day he will grow to be the player that we all know he will become, not a successor to Thierry Henry but Theo Walcott, a virtuoso in his own way.